On Common Ground

Don't Let Clashes Undermine Your Project; Build On What Team Members Already Share



By Karen Smits, PhD

Culture clashes can happen in a flash, hindering collaboration and tripping up project plans. I witnessed this up close while studying the Panama Canal expansion program's Third Set of Locks project for my PhD. Clashes were common among the contractors working on the project, which closed last year. As Panamanian, U.S., Spanish, Italian and Belgian teams worked together, conflicts stemming from cultural differences created rocky relationships among stakeholders. For example, Belgians weren't big on pleasantries, while Panamanians and Italians generally considered queries about colleagues’ families mandatory before getting down to business.

It's the role of the project manager to amplify collaboration in the project organization.

At first, differences just simmered. Soon they were boiling, and project participants used negative metaphors such as “arranged marriage” or “war zone” to describe the work climate. They used labels like “the Spaniards” or “the Northerners.” These us-versus-them statements reflected the lack of security and confidence in an ambiguous work environment, magnified the emotional distance between the project participants and led to a fragmented team.

How can you prevent cultural differences from morphing into poisonous clashes? The starting point is helping project participants feel a sense of togetherness and personal commitment. That effort will encourage them to combine knowledge, adjust work methods and adapt to other organizational cultures. This is how meaningful collaboration happens.

Stakeholders in the Third Set of Locks project found common ground by sharing prior project accomplishments with each other. They all had a mutual passion for and pride in delivering major construction projects. To reflect this, project leaders urged the entire organization to adopt the mantra “the work needs to be done.” Another key driver of collaboration was something more tangible: The canal program brought in intermediary employees to resolve cultural clashes. Acting as neutral diplomats, they played a vital role in transferring knowledge and experiences, and improved the relationship among project participants.

Consequently, team members became motivated to adapt and adjust cultural practices to each other and the complex work environment. For example, some employees learned the local language or modified the methods and procedures to which they were accustomed. They forged cross-cultural relationships that helped the project move forward.

It's the role of the project manager to amplify collaboration in the project organization. Clashes can— and likely will—happen when teams from different countries and with different languages are thrown together into the same high-pressure environment. But by concentrating on cultural similarities, the team can avoid friction. When progress is palpable, a positive feedback loop is likely to develop. PM

img Karen Smits, PhD, is an organizational anthropologist working at Practical Thinking Group in Singapore. She can be reached at [email protected].



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